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Lack of coordination during Mumbai attacks glaring, says top US official

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | December 12, 2008 10:19 IST

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United States Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said the absence of an operational incident manager -- as was developed in the US after the 9/11 attack -- clearly was a major problem during the Mumbai terror attacks [Images], where there was a glaring lack of coordination between various departments and agencies.

Speaking at the Johns Hopkins University, Chertoff said, "This is what was reflected in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago when they wrote about the lack of communication between the fire responders and the emergency responders, the police and the military dealing in the hours and then days after that initial assault in Mumbai."

Chertoff said, "The failure to coordinate all of those elements led to delay and lack of coordination and resulted in criticism directed against the government by the citizens of India itself. This is not again my opinion. I'm not commenting. I wasn't there."

"This is what the papers are reporting and the citizens of India have indicated," he added.

"What you come to recognise is without the kind of incident management and coordination we are building at the Department of Homeland Security, joint planning, joint execution, cutting across the lines of different operators, without that kind of capability, it's easier to have a disconnected response than to have a coordinated and properly connected response."

Chertoff said that shortly after the DHS was created, President George W Bush [Images] had issued a Homeland Security Directive which  "put the Secretary in the position of the operational incident manager in the case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster of significant consequence."

"The purpose of doing this was to recognise that while the White House guides policy, the operational planning, training and execution needs to be in a department and the conception was that the Department of Homeland Security wouldn't control the other departments but that there would be someone who would be saddled with a central responsibility to make sure all of the components of the operators were being synchronised and working well together."

Chertoff said, "This is, of course, a reflection of what they call the Incident Management System which has been adopted in many states as their way of dealing with incidents at the state level. It's a recognition of the fact that again crisis management and consequence management are part of a spectrum. When you're dealing with a potential terrorist attack, for example, you are simultaneously looking at how you prevent further attacks, how do you protect against the attacks that are underway, and how do you respond and mitigate the attacks that have occurred."

He said that "if you don't bring all these elements together, what you have is a disconnected response and it's that kind of disconnection that causes the kinds of problems that are often complained about when there's a terrorist attack and a failure to effectively respond."

Chertoff then mentioned several potential threats and attacks that were pre-empted by doing "it the right way, when we do have properly coordinated response on an operational basis."

He said that in July 2006, when there were questions about "the safety of Americans living in Lebanon during the war between Hezbollah and Israel," the DHS had worked in a coordinated way with several agencies 'using this incident management construct'. The DHS had been able "to facilitate the repatriation of Americans who had to leave Lebanon literally under the stress of fire fights, in order to make sure they were not engulfed in the struggle between Hezbollah and Israel," he said.

At a breakfast meeting with reporters and editors of the Christian Science Monitor, Chertoff made the same arguments, once again bringing up the Mumbai terror incidents and the lack of coordination between the fire and police departments, and arguing that "when you look at a crisis or an emergency, you cannot stovepipe your emergency response and your police response. You have to have a coordinated plan and coordinated execution."

"And, that's why what we've done in terms of joint planning, incident management, integrating prevention response, is to my mind the best way to minimise the risk of a Mumbai type attack."

He said that the DHS would draw lessons from the Mumbai attack, particularly since it was a seaborne assault with terrorists using sophisticated technology and hijacking fishing boats to come ashore on rubber dinghies.

Chertoff said in this regard, the DHS would ramp up its 'small boat strategy' which it had started 18 months ago. "We just didn't wake up because of what happened in Mumbai. We've got a general aviation strategy we have unrolled, and these things obviously are not finished, but we've launched them off to a good start."

"Obviously, we are still fully unpacking the lessons of Mumbai," he said, but argued that 'the key is you want to minimise the risk by having good intelligence and by having effective response, because effective response in a low signature attacks, meaning one that doesn't give a lot of intelligence warning in advance, is your best bet for mitigation."

Asked if his analysts have identified anything out of the Mumbai incident that he believed requires immediate attention, Chertoff said, "When I do an analysis with the bureau, we're going to disseminate what we see as the lessons of Mumbai."

"We need to recognise that technology is an enabler for terrorism," Chertoff said and referred to reports "about how terrorists were able to use everything from watching TV to cell phones, to other kinds of technological tools to advance their schemes."

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